by Greg Welsh
Ed. note: Greg Welsh, owner of the Chestnut Grill & Sidewalk Cafe, 8229 Germantown Ave., who has owned restaurants for 40 years, has for a long time been an outspoken critic of restaurant reviewers for newspapers and magazines, particularly Craig LaBan, the influential critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Here is what Welsh has to say on the issue:
Craig LaBan has called me obsessive, and I am obsessive when it comes to my industry. It is my life, and if someone is doing serious harm to my livelihood, I have a right to react.
LaBan has never reviewed my own restaurants. (Ed. Note: Welsh also previously owned Stella Notte in the Chestnut Hill Hotel, Falls Catfish Cafe & Steakhouse in East Falls and Ogontz Grill in West Oak Lane.) But he bashed a restaurant right here in Chestnut Hill that was owned by a friend of mine, and I believe this hurt every restaurant in our community. In terms of running a successful restaurant, I have always felt that the group is more important than the individual. The objective is to attract people to dine in one of our restaurants, and when that happens, we all win.
My argument is with restaurant critics as a group. We are talking about people with nothing invested and nothing to lose. Regardless of their qualifications, they can say anything they want, even if it’s at our expense. We are focused on Craig LaBan because of his power. In Philadelphia the power comes from the Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine, and I believe Craig LaBan was hired to pump some life into a disappointing food section.
You just can’t do that with positive reviews. People enjoy the negative reviews because that’s just human nature, and it sells papers. I believe Craig LaBan has gone too far, and his negative reviews are the reason I am writing this today. Everyone in the community could care less about all the positive things he has done.
Let me say that this guy is a tremendous writer, and for the most part, he knows the subject of food, but he needs to become more sensitized to the level of destruction he causes. In addition, he was educated in Europe, and his only hands-on restaurant experience was also in Europe. We are talking about two very different food cultures, and I believe one can see this in his reviews.
I believe a food critic should have a solid background in the subject of food and restaurants. You can only appreciate a restaurant by actually working in one. A writer needs to spend some time working behind the line in a kitchen to understand the labor involved as well as the variables in each meal. Review a movie, and everyone sees the same thing. In a restaurant, though, even at the same time someone sitting a few tables away who ordered the same thing from the menu can have a totally different experience.
And I do not buy into the consumer protection argument. If we are going to talk about chefs as businesspeople, then why doesn’t the Inquirer publish reviews of the lawyers who lose cases or the doctors who lose their patients? Talk about protecting the public; why don’t they review all the contractors who do shoddy work and are being sued by their clients? There are many more serious issues than someone spending $40 for a meal. The public takes these reviews very seriously, but we have to keep in mind that the review is totally subjective and that the verdict of the critic is an opinion and only an opinion.
The pen is mightier than the steak knife, but I could write a restaurant review while I doubt that Craig LaBan could run a restaurant. I’m 69 years old, and I’ve seen a lot, and it troubles me that we accept so much today that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Music lyrics, porn advertising, shock jocks — people are chasing the quick buck by continuing to push the envelope. Craig has done this with food reviews, and someone has to fight back. I never liked a bully, and I see him in this category.
I would like to see the restaurant critics teach and inform their readers about what really goes on in the restaurant business. There should be a dialogue in every review between the writer and the owner or chef of the restaurant. The restaurant should have the opportunity to talk about what they see themselves doing and the audience they hope to attract. The restaurants have done a poor job of educating the public, and this is where the critic could be very helpful.
I would like to see the stars and the bells (in restaurant ratings) go away … If something is continuously wrong, then tell the readers. Just don’t make it your mission to put a restaurant out of business. They will do that by themselves.
You will probably not see a review of our restaurant by Craig LaBan any time soon, particularly after all the things I have said about him. But one good thing is that I know what he looks like, and if he does come, we will do everything in our power to give him special treatment, just as we do for all of our guests.
For more information about Chestnut Grill, call 215-247-7570 or visit www.chestnuthillgrill.com.